What’s so curious about the best movies of 2012 is that they aren’t the ones getting Oscar buzz — at least not if you ask me.
It was a great year for movies, with excellent films being offered as early as January (one of those made this list, in fact) and all the way up until, well, January again, when we finally get the wide release of the much-acclaimed “Zero Dark Thirty” that has been making lots of end-of-year lists for those lucky enough to have seen it.
But the other “expected” awards contenders, like “Lincoln,” “Django Unchained” and “Les Misérables” were movies I found very good, but not among the year’s 10 best. Each has obvious flaws and left me more entertained and satisfied than blown away. Only one major contender I found worthy of this list and it’s pictured above.
Interestingly, however, it’s blockbuster films that mostly comprise my top 10. This was an incredible year for genre filmmaking and event films. When films like those deliver on the hype and then some, it’s tough to not count them among the finest achievements of the year. Even some movies that finished just outside my top 10 were blockbusters. But more on that later. For now, take a look at my list and let me know how much you agree or disagree. What were your favorites?
10. The Cabin in the Woods
Long-delayed and seemingly dumped into an April release date, I might’ve keeled over if you said “The Cabin in the Woods” was going to make my list of the year’s 10 best films. Drew Goddard (“Cloverfield”) and Joss Whedon wrote the single-most clever horror film/comedic horror sendup ever and it could stand that way for the rest of time. The film not only tinkers with your expectations for horror films, particularly films set in cabins in the woods, but twists them into something you’d never expect. Best go into this one knowing as little as you can, but if you like satire, horror-comedy and/or science fiction, this is a must-see. (Read my review)
9. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson has given us lots of delightfully quirky films, but none have been as accesible and touching as “Moonrise Kingdom.” There’s something about his dialogue that works so well when the main characters are kids (as evidenced by “Rushmore”) and here it helps you to really identify and connect with the runaway lovebirds, Sam and Suzy. All of Anderson’s visual hallmarks are there with the symmetry, use of music, color palette, etc., but the key with “Moonrise” is that we feel more invested in the story. Anderson’s usual adult cast of characters are all supporting roles in this one, and come off as much funnier in their infinie strangeness and incompetency as a result. Anderson is immensely talented and he gets back on his A-game with this excellent script. (Read my review)
If there’s ever a highly praised original sci-fi movie in any given year, there are almost 1:1 odds it will make my top 10. I was excited about “Looper” all year long, and Rian Johnson didn’t disappoint with this story of a man hunting down his older self when he gets sent back in time. That sentence hardly scratches the level of complexity present in “Looper,” but you can certainly marvel at that chunk of the premise alone. Johnson created an elaborate but simple time-travel plot and his movie intrigues as much as it excites. Joseph Gordon-Levitt proves his leading man chops with his excellent Bruce Willis impression, and actual Bruce … does his thing. Many were turned off by the film’s tidy and poetic ending, but it really drills the movie’s themes home nicely. Science fiction rarely gets better than this. (Read my review)
7. The Grey
Fundamentally, yes, “The Grey” follows the disaster-thriller/horror-thriller model in which members of the ensemble cast are killed off one at a time, but what director Joe Carnahan does with this structure (in combination with Liam Neeson’s excellent leading work) makes “The Grey” a standout of 2012 despite its initially unflattering January release date. As the characters trek through the Alaskan wilderness in hopes of a chance at survival despite a pack of wolves bearing down on them, we feel embedded in their group. The action scenes are frenetic and gritty and the overall film highlights nature’s unpredictable and unforgiving nature. Most surprisingly, there’s quite a bit of emotion infused into the story that’s simple, but deeply moving and analogous to the action on screen in a thought-provoking way. Entertainment and great, heartfelt storytelling don’t usually merge in films of this nature, but “The Grey” takes its time to do just that. (Read my review)
6. The Avengers
When you sit and make a list of the things that you want from a blockbuster, “The Avengers” puts a check mark next to all of them. This ultimate event film was always going to benefit from the sheer glee of bringing together the stars of several quality independent superhero movies into one huge epic, but that didn’t guarantee anything in terms of quality. In fact, it almost seemed like an impossible feat to make something with so many characters function cleanly on screen. But director Joss Whedon’s insistence on character moments and the proper amount of humor and levity really paid off, taking away any possibility that the film was going to take itself too seriously, while still keeping us invested in the outcome. The Chitauri invasion of Manhattan was an absolutely astounding feat of action filmmaking, making for one of the greatest final acts in blockbuster history.
5. Wreck-It Ralph
I don’t know about you, but before “Wreck-It Ralph” I hadn’t been this impressed with an animated movie since “Toy Story 3.” The level of imagination it took to create a world in which video/arcade game characters exist inside their games and their “going to work” is when humans play the games simply blows me away, and they make it make sense. Disney really 1-Upped itself (sorry) to bring “Wreck-It Ralph” to life, but more than that, the sympathy we feel for Ralph, the bad guy who wants to be good, hits hard in the opening minutes, and even as Ralph does some questionable things in hopes of proving his hero status, he evolves into much more of a complex character than you’d ever expect from a family film. “Ralph” is hilarious, creative and heartfelt, even when it does become a more predictable kids flick. Most importantly, it offers something for nearly every age and demo. (Read my review)
4. The Dark Knight Rises
It wasn’t “The Dark Knight,” but Christopher Nolan didn’t appear interested in outdoing himself, and something has to be said for the successful conclusion of one of film’s all-time best trilogies. “The Dark Knight Rises” gave us a rousing end that tied all three films perfectly together. Tom Hardy’s Bane and Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman were without a doubt two of the best blockbuster performances of the year, which was not easy considering the bar set by Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning Joker. The last few minutes of the film were among the most satisfying in any film I saw all year, encapsulating Nolan’s vision for the Batman/Bruce Wayne character. Although riddled with plot holes, “The Dark Knight Rises” still showcases excellence in action filmmaking. (Read my review)
Ben Affleck’s second coming as a director has been outstanding and “Argo” is the next step (and best step yet) in that evolution. With an intriguing screenplay laced with humor and incredible tension, Affleck tells this story of an ex-filtration specialist using a sci-fi movie as a way to extract Americans stuck in a volatile 1970s Iran in an exciting and well-paced fashion. The finished product really honors the heroism of the characters whose story it tells, and brings a whole new light to the “magic of movies.” Breaking up the tension is Grade-A comic relief, chiefly from Alan Arkin as the “film’s” producer. But chiefly, no film kept me on the edge of my seat start to finish like “Argo,” a textbook example of suspenseful filmmaking and my favorite likely awards contender of the year. (Read my review)
2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Also on my list of best unseen films of 2012, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a film that would be a surefire Oscar contender if it didn’t feature unknown actors and a rookie director. Benh Zeitlin’s imagery in expert example of fantastical realism achieves the rare but powerful combination of gritty realism and visual poetry. Lack of experience truly means nothing when you take in the powerful and stirring performances of Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry as a father and daughter whose reality is being torn apart at the seams. It’s not a stretch at all to call “Beasts” a wholly unique film experience. (Read my review)
1. Seven Psychopaths
I would normally be incredibly hesitant to label an off-beat and violent black comedy as the best film of the year, but the brilliance of Martin McDonough’s film can’t be overstated. A meta film experience akin to Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” only more gruesome, “Seven Psychopaths” uses a humorous story of dognappers who end up over their heads to explore the greater significance of violence in our world — when it’s gratuitous compared to when it is a powerful tool. Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and especially Christopher Walken do some of their very best work with this whip-smart screenplay. “Seven Psychopaths” is a dynamite combination of riveting storytelling, colorful and complex characters, stirring violence and utter hilarity. It is destined to be a cult favorite, and though unconventional and with imperfections, my favorite film in amidst a crop of gems in 2012. (Read my review)
The Next 10 Best
12. Silver Linings Playbook
14. The Hunger Games
16. Killer Joe
18. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
20. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey